Memorial Day traditionally has been viewed as the start of the pennant races. So let’s get ready for the excitement by declaring the AL races — over.
At best, six teams are likely vying for five spots, and if you believe the Indians are more house of cards than wild cards, the final four months of the season might be about who finishes first in the AL East and which two clubs are relegated to a one-and-done game.
As the weekend began, FanGraphs had five AL teams — the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Twins and Astros — with at least a 73 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Indians were next at 61 percent. After that? That would be the A’s at 4.8 percent. There were as many teams with half a percent or lower chances to make the playoffs — the Rangers, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Blue Jays and Orioles (with those last three given zero percent) — as 61 percent or higher.
Again, it is not even Memorial Day.
The Baseball Prospectus version had the Indians (67.2 percent) ahead of the Red Sox (59.9) as the fifth- and sixth-best percentages, then after that the A’s at 8.1 percent. The six dregs were at 1.1 percent or less.
This, unfortunately, is the script we expected playing out — same as last season. In 2018, the AL had six teams winning 90 or more (with the A’s crashing the party rather than the Twins) and five clubs losing 95 or more, plus the Blue Jays lost 89. So it is the same six dregs again.
You want to find pockets of hope? Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is now up for the Blue Jays with promise of other strong prospects to filter in behind him. The Royals — with Hunter Dozier, Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, Aldaberto Mondesi and Jorge Soler — are perhaps assembling a positional core to mimic Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez.
But the have and have not-ification of the American League, in particular, is a blight for a sport that used to talk about mechanisms — the luxury tax, greater revenue sharing — providing hope and dreams throughout the landscape.
Instead, attendance is down league-wide for a fourth straight year. There are many factors involved. But lack of competitiveness for nearly two-thirds of a league is central. Of the 17 teams that through the same number of dates have lower attendance in 2019 than 2018, 10 are in the AL and five are the dregs. The only dreg member ahead is the Rangers, and they are just barely above — perhaps fueled by nostalgia for the final season in Globe Life Park in Arlington (can there be nostalgia for a stadium two decades old?).
Clubs such as the Orioles and Tigers are not only bad, but it is hard to see how that would not be the case for at least another three years. The White Sox have intriguing pieces but the worst record in the majors since the start of 2013, raising the possibility those in charge do not know how to construct a consistent winner.
In the same period, the team with the best record in the AL is not the Yankees or Red Sox or Astros. It is the Indians. And they were in the race this year. But if you like this rendering of the Indians, it is as much about 57 games vs. the Royals, Tigers and White Sox — against whom they were just 6-8 so far this year — as the roster.
Cleveland’s strength has been its rotation, and now Mike Clevinger (back) is out until at least late June and Corey Kluber (fractured ulna bone) is out until at least August. The offense, with Michael Brantley gone (to the Astros) and Jose Ramirez having taken three steps back, is a trainwreck.
Few baseball operations departments are more widely admired around the sport than that of the Indians. And when you ask outsiders, they say president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff will honestly assess their situation.
Translation: Their best chance to win the Indians’ first title since 1948 was 2016-18 (particularly 2016). They will not keep throwing prospects and tight funds at a pipe dream to avoid repeating the Tigers’ path from serial contenders to punching bags. Thus, even if their record is somewhat inflated by their divisional competition, they will not hesitate to trade, say, Trevor Bauer, Brad Hand or Carlos Santana if it sets them up to shorten any period of retooling. One rival said it would be hard to imagine star shortstop Francisco Lindor moving before the offseason, but with his free agency coming after 2021 and the unlikelihood Cleveland will find the $300 million-plus it might take to keep him, that day is coming, too.
So if the Indians sell, then we very well might have the five AL playoff teams determined already. Now, the A’s of the past two decades have regularly elevated as the season progresses, including last year when they went from 35-36 to finish 97-65.
Could the Angels ride a better-than-anticipated offense and a worse-than-expected rotation (and that unit was expected to be pretty bad) toward contention? That feels more likely next season, with Shohei Ohtani back to pitching, an improving farm system providing greater depth and perhaps financial flexibility in the offseason to import better rotation help than Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey, who in 17 combined starts were 3-7 with a 6.83 ERA.
For this year, though, the AL race might be defined before Memorial Day. It is a real problem for MLB.
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